2014-04-23 / Family

Remembering Carver

School segregation exhibit shows history in black and white
By Rich Griset

A photo of Carver High school bus drivers during the 1960-61 school year. A photo of Carver High school bus drivers during the 1960-61 school year. Audrey M. Ross remembers the trek to school.

“We traveled about 26 miles, one way, each day on the bus,” Ross recalled. “We met at Midlothian Elementary School each morning to get picked up.”

At 64, she is old enough to remember when schools in Chesterfield were segregated. She’s also old enough to remember those difficult years during desegregation and Massive Resistance. When she attended high school in the 1960s, blacks were given an option: integrate into the previously whites-only high school nearby, or attend Carver, the county’s lone blacks-only high school. Ross chose Carver.

Every day, Ross and other Carver students caught the bus at nearer schools and traveled to Chester, where Carver was located. On the advice of a science teacher, she pursued a biology degree at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and became a scientist.

Experiences like Ross’ are what the Chesterfield County Museum aims to recognize with its current exhibit, “African-American Schools in Chesterfield County During the Segregated Era.”

“At the time, all the African-Americans knew each other, because we attended the same high school,” said Ross, a member of the Chesterfield Historical Society’s African-American History Committee. The group spent months researching the history of African-American schools in the county as part of its ongoing Four Score and More campaign.

The first black public school in Chesterfield is believed to have been a one-room schoolhouse in Midlothian. Set up in a log cabin on land donated by a church, the school probably first opened its doors in the 1870s. Teachers would instruct multiple grade levels at the same time, teaching one group of students the day’s lesson before moving onto the next.

One-room schoolhouses were standard for blacks until philanthropist Julius Rosenwald established the Rosenwald Fund. Working to improve education and facilities for African-American students in the rural South, Rosenwald provided funds to build new schoolhouses. Chesterfield had six Rosenwald Schools.

While photos exist of many of these early schools, details are hard to come by.

“Frankly, the county records from the early years are quite sketchy,” said Bernard Anderson, born and raised in Chesterfield. “Between 1870 and about 1910, there was no mention of the black schools at all in the county School Board minutes.”

Anderson serves as a member of the historical society’s board of directors and the African-American history committee. He graduated from Carver High in 1965.

“We understood at the time that we were at a disadvantage, not getting the same education or equipment, but we had good teachers that prepared for us to go on to college,” Anderson said. After Carver, Anderson obtained a bachelor’s in physics, and master’s degrees in accounting and information systems.

For the exhibit, the committee compiled old photographs and yearbooks from segregated schools, and created a map depicting where every known African-American school in the county was located. The museum also started an ongoing oral history project at John Tyler Community College’s Chester Campus. The project pairs students with older African-Americans to document their experiences with segregated schools. A video compiling these interviews can be viewed on request at the museum.

Younger visitors to the exhibit have been surprised to learn about segregation.

“We have kids come in and they don’t have a clue that this happened,” said Pat Roble, museum associate. “Segregation did exist, and it wasn’t really that long ago.”

Since the exhibit opened earlier this year, a number of people have come forward with their own stories of Chesterfield’s segregated schools, including African-Americans who opted to integrate.

“They shared their experiences, which were not always pleasant,” Ross said. “Some of them even dropped out, or went back to the all-black schools.”

In 1970, Carver High was shut down and all Chesterfield County schools integrated. Ross said she received an invaluable education at Carver, thanks to teachers who set a high level of expectation for her and her fellow students.

“I learned everything I needed to further myself in education and in life,” said Ross, who later obtained a master’s in public health from the Medical College of Virginia. “In spite of the obstacles that African-Americans were faced with in the early years, getting an education was of the utmost importance.”

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